Winter Training for the Ironman Athlete

a triathlete riding his bike in the winter in Boulder, Colorado
January 8, 2017

D3 Staff


In North America, the IRONMAN calendar has had a shift in timing of their events. There are now 17 IRONMAN races in North America, and all but four races take place after July. That means that training in January gives you a minimum of 7 months to prepare, and in some cases over 9 months. What does this mean for your training through the winter months?

Classic Periodization

Many athletes take the approach of using the winter months to build a solid base, then switch to more speed and race pace work through the spring and early summer, and then have a final race prep period. This approach is often referred to as Classic Periodization plan.

In my view, this is a bit of a backwards approach. Why do all the specific training early, then move to the intense work as a way to “sharpen up”? Rather, it would be best to set up your training so you are performing your most specific training closer to race day.

Reverse Periodization

Often referred to as Reverse Periodization, you are more likely to be successful by focusing on building your power and strength first, then moving to the over distance training necessary for IRONMAN.

When you consider the time of year, this begins to make even more sense. Trying to build base while on the trainer or treadmill is demanding both physically and mentally. Instead, using shorter, more intense sessions will make you a faster and stronger athlete. Then, when spring arrives and you can enjoy longer days in warmer temperatures, you can begin work on extending your power and speed. Even if your longest ride is three hours through February, you would have a minimum of four months to build your long ride to six hours.

General Phase

IRONMAN is raced at 65 to 75% of your Functional Threshold Power (FTP)/ Lactate Threshold Heart Rate. So, if your FTP is 250 watts, you would be racing the bike around 175 watts. If your FTP is 280 watts, you can race at 195 watts and be going faster even at the same output percentage. Like the old saying goes, “all boats rise in a high tide”.

The winter months are the perfect time to train in what I call the General Phase, which can be 12 to 16 weeks. It is during this time that you can focus on building your Functional Threshold Power (FTP) / Lactate Threshold Heart Rate (LTHR) for the bike and your Lactate Threshold Pace (LTP) / LTHR on the run. Achieving these goals is done with shorter workouts, so you don’t mentally drain yourself with long sessions indoors or fighting the cold temperatures.

On the bike, this can can be done on shorter rides of 90 minutes to two hours where you focus on riding at 90% of your FTP/LTHR. You can also do big gear work to help strengthen the exact muscles you need for a strong bike.

For the run, the same principle applies. Don’t slog away for 2 hours on a treadmill and instead work in intervals at 90% of your LTHR/LTP . Do not be too concerned about pace when you start. You won’t have your goal race pace fitness yet, but as you stick with it, your efficiency will increase as will your speed. Starting in January, this phase would last until March or April.

Specific Phase

After focusing on power and speed during the winter, when spring comes and the weather lets you ride and outside you can take your new power levels and start working on your endurance. Think of it as building power, then building your ability to sustain that power over time.

The Specific Phase can last 12 to 16 weeks depending on your past training history and goals. Starting this phase in March means you can be ready for an IRONMAN in August or later without pressing your build up. If your longest indoor ride was three hours, you can still easily work your way up to a long ride of six hours over 12 weeks.

Benefits for 70.3 Races

Another benefit to this approach is that you will be sharp and strong for any shorter races you do in your lead up to IRONMAN. You may be doing a 70.3 in June, and with months of power and speed work under your belt you will be primed and ready to have a great race. If you’ve spent months riding moderately for long periods, you will struggle to cope with the intensity of shorter racing.

So this year, try an approach that will leave you stronger and more motivated during the winter. Avoid long sessions done in the isolation of your basement riding and running in place. Instead, focus on building core competencies like power and strength. When spring comes and the weather is more cooperative, you can then work on building your endurance with long and enjoyable rides and runs in the sun.

Do you want to build your power and strength this winter? Coach AJ is offering a 20% discount on his 16 week Ironman Winter Training Plan. Use code D3Athlete20 to save! Learn more here. 

AJ Johnson is USAT Level I Certified Coach and Training Peaks Certified Coach. He notes, “one of the things I love about triathlon coaching is that no two athletes are the same – even when their goals are. I view each person that I work with as a puzzle with unique abilities, motivators, lifestyle and potential. There’s nothing I enjoy more than helping someone incorporate the individual pieces to get the results they looking for – because when it all comes together, it’s amazing!”

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